Professors of the world unite. You have more to lose than just your jobs.

18 05 2012

Via the comments of this terrific Historiann post, I am shocked, shocked to see that Tom Friedman loves MOOCs:

Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. The costs of getting a college degree have been rising faster than those of health care, so the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever. At the same time, in a knowledge economy, getting a higher-education degree is more vital than ever. And thanks to the spread of high-speed wireless technology, high-speed Internet, smartphones, Facebook, the cloud and tablet computers, the world has gone from connected to hyperconnected in just seven years. Finally, a generation that has grown up on these technologies is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.

The World Is Flat is a smug, poorly-researched and pedantic book. Of course he thinks MOOCs are the answer to all the world’s educational problems! All the world, that is, as long you forget the professors who currently teach students in actual classrooms. Cheering the destruction of entire industries is this guy’s bread and butter.

So don’t think that your exalted status as a college professor will cause anyone planning to make money off the corpse of your career to lose a wink of sleep. As Mark Cuban put it the other day:

It’s just a matter o time until we see the same meltdown in traditional college education. Like the real estate industry, prices will rise until the market revolts. Then it will be too late. STudents will stop taking out the loans traditional Universities expect them to. And when they do tuition will come down. And when prices come down Universities will have to cut costs beyond what they are able to. They will have so many legacy costs, from tenured professors to construction projects to research they will be saddled with legacy costs and debt in much the same way the newspaper industry was. Which will all lead to a de-levering and a de-stabilization of the University system as we know it.

And it can’t happen fast enough.

You’re not a person with a family to feed. You’re a legacy cost. Or worse yet, you’re just another special interest. This reminds me of the screaming arguments I used to have with my brother the economist over free trade.*

“It’s good for the country,” he’d yell.

“What are the auto workers supposed to do, sit silently and watch their jobs disappear?,” I’d reply.


That was the early-nineties. Today, you, my friends and colleagues, are in the same position that those auto workers were in back then. Tenure won’t protect you if the student loan pipeline shuts down. Tenure won’t protect you if your state legislature decides that you are expendable (and in case you haven’t noticed, most Republicans don’t care much for college professors outside of business schools and economics departments). You know what “financial exigency” is, right? The folks at LSU may be about to learn.

I’m not saying any of this is necessarily going to come to pass. However, the kind of technologically-induced educational and financial disaster that would make Tom Friedman cackle with glee is a lot more likely if you decide to stand silently and let other people make your university’s decisions for you without your voice being heard. And being heard is usually more successful when people yell together.

* To be fair, he was doing most of the screaming. After all, I am the younger brother.



2 responses

18 05 2012

Well said, Jonathan. What does your economist brother have to say about this, I wonder? Is he on Friedman’s side or yours?

19 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

I haven’t asked him, but that sounds like it could be an interesting argument.

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